In wartime Berlin, rape took no sides

By — August 14, 2012

Not every survivor wants to talk about rape.

We know that many women and men choose to keep their stories private, be it to move past their abuse internally or, perhaps more often, to avoid being shunned or re-attacked. We also know that open conversation about sexualized violence is something whole societies still grapple with: From Sudan to the United States, it is only in the last few decades that a respectful public dialogue has begun. It is that much more important, then, to recognize historical examples—the few instances in which women did come forward despite a climate that was likely even more judgmental than today’s.

Of such older documents, the best known may be a book published in the U.S. in 1954. A Woman in Berlin: Eight Weeks in the Conquered City, by Anonymous, is the page-turning tale of a woman’s—a journalist’s—inner thoughts during the Soviet occupation of Berlin. The author writes of near starvation, bombings, loss of radio communication and print news, life in a basement shelter and in an attic with a group of “discards,” surviving and witnessing repeated rapes, and “consenting” to sex for survival. According to Antony Beevor, the scholar who penned the introduction to the latest edition, 2 million German women endured sexualized violence at the hands of the Russian troops. Anonymous was but one of them.

Though sexualized violence against women in the Holocaust and secret files have come to light very recently, the story of Anonymous has been around for more than half a century. Still, it wasn’t until 2003, two years after she had died, that a German newspaper revealed what it said was the author’s identity—a woman named Marta Hillers. Afterward, scholars including Beevor confirmed that the book was based on a real diary, but none have verified the Hillers claim. The account was republished in the U.S. in 2005.

I picked up the book at the urging of a friend who, knowing that I had written an article about Lara Logan’s assault case and that I regularly check WMC’s Women Under Siege, told me it was a must-read.

It is, in fact, a must for anyone concerned with sexualized violence in war and the voices of those who have experienced it. It also serves as an important complement to those testimonies we do have from women abused not in Berlin but while held in concentration camps, where violence against women took on a number of forms.

Especially noteworthy is the clarity with which Anonymous documents her thoughts—and the sounds, smells, and scenes she experiences. She details her rape by two soldiers, everything from the hand around her throat threatening to choke her if she screams to the feel of the tile floor beneath her as she tries in vain to fight back. Her gallows humor is remarkable, and gives the reader some relief from the dreariness. Lines such as “…my bed is freshly made—a much needed change after all those booted guests” and “Is he sleeping? Yes, and very soundly, too: the man is dead” give a sense of the writer’s individual wit even as she is treated as subhuman.

She also illustrates the differences she sees between peacetime and wartime rape—differences that WMC’s Women Under Siege analyzes today. She writes:

I look at the 16-year-old girl, up to now the only person I know who lost her virginity to the Russians. … One thing is for sure: if this were peacetime and a girl had been raped by some vagrant, there’d be the whole peacetime hoopla of reporting the crime, taking the statement, questioning witnesses, arrest and confrontation…. But here we’re dealing with a collective experience, something foreseen and feared many times in advance that happened to women right and left…. And this mass rape is something we are overcoming collectively as well. All the women help each other by speaking about it, airing their pain…. Which of course doesn’t mean that creatures more delicate than this cheeky little Berlin girl won’t fall apart or suffer for the rest of their lives.

We never know what happens, ultimately, to the women she describes. What we do know is that Anonymous’ fiancé returned from the front and then left her, unable to comprehend the choices she had made for survival, unable to believe the very diaries she gave him to read. One can only imagine the depth of loss she felt from his inability to accept what she had endured.

As with much in war, the writer’s history is itself murky. There has been some debate over whether Anonymous was a Nazi sympathizer: The original publisher of her diaries may have himself written a Nazi propaganda book, and Anonymous is believed by some to have written a Navy recruiting brochure. (A German journalist, Jens Bisky, claimed to have found evidence of both, though the executor of the original publisher’s estate declined to confirm.) Several passages of A Woman in Berlin, however, imply that the author could not have been a sympathizer. “Our German calamity has a bitter taste,” she writes, “—of repulsion, sickness, insanity, unlike anything in history.”

Whether the author knew as she was keeping her diary that she was going to seek to publish is unclear. The book stirred controversy in Germany. Her peers were apparently dismayed with a book about “their” women being “sullied” by rape; at the time of original publication, Anonymous was criticized for having written it. The fact that she also, in several places, criticizes her country’s men (or at least makes them appear broken from the war; she writes: “…they [men] seem so miserable and powerless…. Among the many defeats at the end of this war is the defeat of the male sex”) may have contributed to readers being unable to digest what she had to tell.

From later newspaper articles, we know that Anonymous did not want her identity revealed and asked her publisher not to reprint it during her lifetime. But whether the author wanted anonymity due only to Germany’s negative reaction or due, additionally, to the burden of her potential connections to the Nazis is unclear.

If Anonymous did in fact have ties to the Third Reich, some may want to “out” her, or view the horrors she experienced in a different light. But doing so would miss the point: Things are rarely clear in war. Morality as we know it in peacetime (or in hindsight) is, at best, difficult to maintain when you’re scrounging for food in an abandoned garden or “stealing” glass from an empty factory to repair your blown-out windows or trading sex—really, rape—for rations. What is clear is that few in wartime Germany were spared the effects of widespread terror.

Though we are unable to give Anonymous the type of support we can provide to living survivors, I like to think that by acknowledging her voice here, we’ve included her—and by extension, the other women she writes about—in our collective memory. She left all of us a firsthand, day-by-day account of the hell German women experienced during the Russian occupation: the mass rape, lack of real shelter, and inability to find food. Because she did, we know exactly what that hell felt like, smelled like, looked like.

And we cannot easily forget once we know.